By virtue of my Russian capabilities and my host sister’s English skills, I’ve had a few enlightening conversations about Moldovan culture as well as Moldovan citizens’ notions of America.
Though on the surface Moldova seems to be a fairly advanced developing country (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who served in the Corps in Nepal 37 years ago noted that as far as Corps countries go, Moldova is relatively affluent), salaries still run low. A conversation with one my host sister’s friends revealed that for the average worker, a monthly wage will amount to approximately $100-$200 per month. This is why many families will opt for one of the adults to work abroad and support the family through remittance. I mentioned in a previous post that my host father is a member of this club; I have spoken to other volunteers who report similar situations in their homes. One volunteer has a host mother who is working in Israel. Other popular destinations include Ireland and Italy – my host mother mentioned that she studied Italian for a time when she thought that she might travel there to be a housekeeper.
And so we are tasked with aiding this developing country whose able-bodied residents are gone in search of prosperity. As a part of the Community and Organizational Development technical training, my colleagues and I have been tasked to complete a Community Mapping project that will help us identify the immediate needs of our village. The title is self-explanatory: we explore the community, identify sites of interests and map them on a visual aid. My four-strong group decided to wander in the direction of our village’s church (in Romanian, referred to as a basilica) and catch a view of the town from the ridge above its domes.
About halfway into our journey, we bumped into and old man who was just ambling from his front gate – perhaps he had heard the loud Americans coming. He quickly engaged with us, asking where each Peace Corps volunteer in our convoy is staying. The old man has both a son and a daughter in Canada, and seemed thrilled to meet us. Each of my slow Russian responses were met with a slew of enthusiastic questions or tidbits about our village. Didn’t we see the gate to the cemetery on our hilly ascent? This is where the churchgoers enter for funerals. How old is that man (referring to my fellow volunteer)? 62? Hah! The old man is 73 and still strong – so why does our volunteer have white hair? Was he spooked? “It’s because I’m wise,” my volunteer friend humorously quipped.
When we revealed our American origins, our new friend’s face broke into a grin followed by a babble of names: “Obama! Your president! It’s so strange that he’s black… Who was next? Bill Clinton? George Clooney!” Race is a topic that has arisen multiple times since my arrival in-country. In Peace Corps training, it has been stressed that many Moldovans are not accustomed to diversity. The subject even came up in a conversation with my host mother Nadea as I helped her with dishes after dinner one night.
Nadea and I began our conversation chatting about our expectations for this host stay – she and her family were just as nervous as I had been to discover who would be sharing their home for two months. Doamna (a term of respect for Moldovan women, comparable to the American “Missus”) Lidea, our village’s community organizer, had suggested Nadea’s home to the Peace Corps housing director. Doamna Lidia called up Nadea one evening and asked if she would be interested in housing a volunteer; Nadea asked for two days to consider. She then approached her two daughters to gauge their feelings on the matter. Both were enthusiastic, but the elder daughter had stipulations: “I want someone young, who I won’t be embarrassed to walk with in the center (of town)!” And her other requirement? “I don’t want someone who’s black.”
Of course my host mother was aware that she had no say over what kind of volunteer would be assigned to her home. But what her daughter said took me by surprise – why not black? Just earlier that day, we had discussed my host sister’s love of Beyonce and Rhianna (both, she stated when I asked why she liked them, are beautiful and take care of themselves). I argued that my host sister’s favorite singers were black, but Nadea parried that they “weren’t really black,” and used a word that sounded to me like “caramel” when describing the singers.
Though we had a simple and brief conversation about racism and equality in America, we were not able to dig into the weeds that this kind of conversation often sprouts. I could only infer that there is a difference between “being” black and “looking” black in Moldova. Appearances here are everything – you see it in the streets of Moldova observing sharply pressed pants, buffered shoes and soft dresses – and are a topic of conversation in this household daily. Nadea has suggested several times that I should dress up and wear makeup to school, will comment on my outfit or my hair before I leave, will talk about her own outfit or her daughter’s. (Do I have to say that this was abrasive to me at first? I resisted the value of appearance for so long that I find myself struggling to adapt. Shout-out to Nick…). Perhaps my host sister’s perception of beauty or appearance informs her understanding of race? A conversation for another time…
Interesting tidbit: I asked my host mother if we could go to church this Sunday, and she agreed. But today she explained that she couldn’t go, as she is menstruating… “You need to be clean to set foot in the church.”
(For you cat fans out there… I made a new friend!! He’s a wunky orange creamsicle cat, and though skittish when I first came at him, he let me give him a good scritching today. My host mother won’t let him inside, but I’m determined to tame him. I hope she’ll forgive me…)